Putting Singapore on the Global Menu

How uniquely Singapore tastes go international

Issue: Aug 2011

Laksa
Singapore fare like laska (spicy noodles in a rich coconut broth) can be found far and wide thanks to local food companies going global

Fancy some Singapore hawker fare for lunch while you are in China? How about kaya (egg and coconut custard) toast in Thailand for tea or bakkwa (barbecued pork) in the Philippines for a snack? These days, not only can you have a taste of the world when you are in Singapore, you can have a taste of Singapore while you travel the world. More and more Singapore food brands have gone global with local cuisine. This is, of course, excellent for exporting the Singapore name. And, certainly something to write back about for Singaporeans in far-flung places who hanker for a taste of home. Two of the Singapore food brands who have gone international are Bread Talk Group Limited and Bee Cheng Hiang. These brands can be found in CapitaMalls Asia's shopping malls in Singapore and China.

Food Republic
With décor reminiscent of kampongs of the past, the nostalgia-evoking Food Republic offers hawker fare in an open-air concept consisting of stalls, mini restaurants and pushcarts in outlets in several parts of Asia


Bee Cheng Hiang
Bee Cheng Hiang's brand vision "to be the best in helping people to experience and share enjoyable moments in everyday life" is the impetus behind its expansion plans

Exporting the Singapore Name

BreadTalk Group Limited is one of the giants in the Singapore food business that has footprints around the world. The Singapore-based company which was founded in 2000 runs a chain of boutique bakeries (BreadTalk), cake shops (The Icing Room), kampong-style cafes (Toast Box), fast food eateries (Carl's Jr China), restaurants (Din Tai Fung and Ramen Play), and food courts (Food Republic) in Singapore, Asia and the Middle East. At the end of 2010, they reported a total of 395 bakery outlets, 21 restaurants and 32 food atria worldwide. The driving force behind their rapid and extensive expansion is the "shared vision to be an international trend-setting lifestyle brand".

Another local food brand that is playing with the big boys in the international arena is Bee Cheng Hiang. What started as a pushcart in Chinatown in 1933 selling barbecued meat has since expanded into a multi-million dollar enterprise spanning eight countries across the world. For them, the decision to go beyond the shores was market driven.

"Bee Cheng Hiang is all about enjoying and sharing food experiences," said Group General Manager and Brand Champion, Daniel Wong. "Over the years, we have received countless order enquiries from different parts of the world, regularly requesting for our products to be shipped over to them. These customers come from Japan, Korea, Canada, France, and even USA. There are also franchise enquiries from potential partners who wish to bring our products into their markets."

It was such market demands that prompted Bee Cheng Hiang to expand into countries like China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Korea. Bee Cheng Hiang also regularly embarks on familiarisation trips organised by International Enterprise Singapore to do market research abroad for new places to set up outlets.

Bee Cheng Hiang
Bee Cheng Hiang bakkwa tastes just as good in any country because the same marinade developed in 1933 is used in all markets

Tantalising International Taste Buds with Singapore Flavours

But setting up shop outside of Singapore is more than just about bringing the brand abroad. It is also about offering the Singapore taste to a whole new breed of consumers. For Bee Cheng Hiang, this means offering consistent quality wherever the brand goes. Whether you buy the bakkwa in Seoul, Shanghai or Singapore, the marinade is the same one that has been used since it started selling these slices of barbecued meat in 1933.

"We prefer to stick to our original recipe so that through our products, our customers will be able to experience a true, authentic slice of Singapore bakkwa culture," maintained Mr Wong.

Creating the same eating experience is another means by which companies market the Singapore brand. After all, ambience enhances the experience. Step into Toast Box outlets anywhere and you will find that apart from nearly identical menus, the décor is also identical – wood panels and memorabilia from the colonial days that evoke old world charm. You won't just taste home, you will feel like you have come home.

Bee Cheng Hiang adheres to strict guidelines to ensure that the look of its outlets, its logo and packaging are uniform regardless of location. This assures all its customers that they are getting the same high quality products as the kind available in the company's country of origin, Singapore.

BreadTalk's Urumqi bread
This lamb kebab inspired bun was developed specially by BreadTalk for the Urumqi, China market which has a predominantly Muslim population

Adapting the Singapore Brand to Local Markets

Of course, no brand can succeed abroad without a measure of sensitivity and responsiveness to the local market. It is a fine balance between guarding the Singapore brand and adapting to foreign expectations. BreadTalk Group Limited's parent brand, BreadTalk, is particularly good at this. Its signature pork floss bun, Flosss, is a hot favourite in every one of its outlets around the world. Worldwide, they sell one Flosss every 10 seconds.

But it also knows how to create buns that engage local tastes. In Indonesia and the Middle East, Flosss uses chicken rather than pork floss and all its buns are halal. BreadTalk also has creations unique to the local market. In India, it has butter chicken buns and its curry bun uses local spices different from the ones used in Singapore. In Korea, it has bulgogi beef buns and kimchi buns. And for Urumqi, China where there is a predominantly Muslim population, a special lamb kebab bun was created.

Braised pork & rice
This braised pork and rice dish, available in China's Toast Box outlets, is so well-received that Toast Box is considering to introduce it in other markets

"We have a special R & D team in China that creates new flavours for China alone and another R & D team in Singapore that develops new products for our BreadTalk outlets in Singapore and the rest of the world," said Joyce Koh, Senior Vice President, Brand Development for BreadTalk Group Limited.

In China, Toast Box cafes do not serve the soft-boiled eggs so beloved in Singapore. Instead, fried eggs are on the menu because the Chinese prefer their eggs well done. They also have a braised pork and rice dish which is unique to China. In fact, it is doing so well, they are considering to bring the item to other markets.

As for food court chain, Food Republic, its mantra of bringing together the best local hawker foods under one roof is faithfully followed in every market. So, Food Republic in China has all the street foods of China like a variety of noodles, dumplings and pancakes. The one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, offers Malaysian favourites like nasi padang (rice with assort dishes), Penang specialties (lam mee, laksa) and Ipoh cuisine (hor fun and sang har meen). But Food Republic always reserves some space to promote Singapore street food. Hainanese chicken rice, for example, is served in Food Republic in Hong Kong because it is an iconic dish much associated with Singapore.

Kimchi bakkwa
A touch of local flavor to the same great taste, the Kimchi Bakkwa is one of Bee Cheng Hiang's creations designed to draw the local market

Bee Cheng Hiang also has special edition bakkwas that cater to specific taste buds. They created an extra spicy Mala Bakkwa to pique the interest of their Szechuan customers when they entered the city in 2009. Similar selections with local flavours have been offered as well: Satay Bakkwa for Malaysians, Kimchi Bakkwa to entice the Koreans and Wasabi Crispy Pork Floss for the Japanese.

With such strategy, intuition and foresight, it's clear that Singapore food brands hungry for a bigger slice of the international consumer pie will continue to succeed.

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